The Nashville premiere of Caroline, or Change is a powerful testament to the extraordinary talents of those who created the musical and the Street Theatre Company artists who present it. It’s one of the best shows one can see this or any year.
Director Peter Vann has assembled a top-flight cast and crew led by the remarkable Brooke Leigh Davis in the title role. The voices, and the acting, are superb.
The solid foundation of this mostly sung-through 2003 show lies in the rich book and lyrics of Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and the multi-faceted music of Jeanine Tesori (Violet). The impressive score draws from an eclectic mix of Motown, Jewish klezmer and folk music, Mozart, Christmas carols and other sources.
The setting is 1963 Louisiana. Caroline is a maid working for a Jewish family in crisis: Eight-year-old Noah (Dalton Tilghman) has lost his mother to cancer, and his father (Mike Baum) has remarried to Rose (Janette Bruce). Noah adores Caroline, whose thoughts are understandably preoccupied with concerns about her own children.
The youngster has a habit of leaving change in his pants pockets, so Rose decides she can teach him the value of money by telling Caroline to keep any change she finds instead of returning it to the boy. The unintended consequences of this decision soon become painfully evident.
Kushner spends a great amount of time on character exposition, but for the most part the result of his collaboration with Tesori is an enthralling musical that feels influenced by the irreverence of Stephen Schwartz and the wit of Stephen Sondheim. Touches such as a Supremes-like Greek chorus (the excellent LaToya Gardner, Charletta Jordan and Chessani “CeCe” Scott), the often comic commentary provided by Grandpa and Grandma Gellman (the delightful John Silvestro and Diane J. Zandstra) a singing washing machine (Naeaidria Michele Callihan, who voice possesses a compelling power) and dryer (Shawn Lewis in a wonderful turn where he’s also a bus and its driver) leaven the subject matter with wonderful streaks of absurdity.
Caroline’s rebellious daughter Emmie is played and sung with conviction by the sparkling Piper Jones (her character’s brothers are well-handled by Zavior Phillips and Carrington Charles Pitts). DaJuana Hammonds is also a standout as Dottie, who does her best to befriend Caroline and her family.
Baum gives another in a long line of strong performances as Noah’s heart-sick father. Bruce is incredible as Rose, capturing both the superficial and sincere strands of her character. L.T. Kirk plays the emotional beats of Rose’s father Stopnik perfectly. And Benee’ Jeanise Henri’ Wisdom is a beguiling Moon.
But at the heart of this show are Noah and Caroline, and in singing and acting Tilghman and Davis provide the emotional core for this production with their formidable talents and focus. It’s rare one forgets for even a moment that actors are playing parts, but these two are so good it’s easy and understandable to do just that.
Add components like Stephanie Walker’s choreography, Rollie Main’s musical direction of a wonderful seven-piece orchestra that includes himself, Laura Higgins’ detailed period costumes and Aaron Beck’s fine split-level set and there’s not a weak link in the dramatic chain of this production. It’s another feather in the cap of STC, where high quality has been consistent reality for quite some time.
Caroline, or Change runs through Sept. 30 at Street Theatre Company (1933 Elm Hill Pike). Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets ($18 for adults and $16 for students and seniors, with specials including a Talk-Back night, Student night, and Starving Artist night) and more info are available by calling 615-554-7414 or visiting www.streettheatrecompany.org.